Tips for Working from Home to Stay Sane and Productive

I am very much a creature of habit. But, it’s not just me. Humans, in general, are creatures of habit. In our personal lives, we frequent a specific set of restaurants, or we cook the same 5-10 recipes over and over, we do the same leisure activities on weekends, and attend the same types of events. You get the idea. We do these things because they are comfortable and have an expected outcome. You know that if you go to your favorite restaurant, chances are you’re going to have an enjoyable meal. It’s easy to fall into this rut. And when we’re talking about where to eat, it’s not that big a deal. But, what happens when you’re in a rut at work?

The challenge of working at home

For me, working remotely means sitting in my home office at a desk with an external keyboard and monitor about 95% of the time. Oh, I’ve tried working from coffee shops, co-working facilities, the couch, and the kitchen table. These can all be great as a way to mix things up from time to time. But when I need to focus and really dive deep, it has to be at my desk.

If you work at home, you are constantly going to be battling distractions. Having a dedicated workspace can be a huge help in several ways. Three really important ones for me are:

Let your family know that when you’re sitting at the desk, it’s work time and you shouldn’t be bothered

This can be a difficult one. Your partner or kids may think it’s not a problem to “ask a quick question”, but if you’re deep into a task, that one question can derail your train of thought and it can be 15-30 minutes before you get back to where you were.

Maintaining a work/life alliance can be a delicate dance

When I tell people I work from home, many say “I could never do that. I’d be too tempted to play video games all day.” To me, that’s never been a problem. Actually, I have much the opposite problem. Since I work at home, I need to force myself to stop working and step away from the desk.

A friend, who also worked from home, once said to me, “The laziest thing I can do is go to my desk and be there for 12 hours.” He’s exactly right. I’ve found myself in this position many times. I’m at my desk all day and night, but yet, I didn’t get all that much done. What I’ve found is that if I place limitations on the amount of time I give myself to be at the desk, I sit down more focused in the morning and stay on task knowing that I have a limited time before I “go home” for the evening.

When you sit down to work, work. When you’re done for the day, be done.

A place for everything, and everything in its place

Years ago, I battled insomnia pretty regularly. I would lay away in bed thinking of the gigantic list of To Do items on my list, the client calls I had lined up for the next day, the after-school activities the kids had coming up, and the effectiveness of those end-caps they added to airplane wings a few years back that point up sharply at the ends. Basically, my brain just wouldn’t shut up. During that time, I received an incredibly helpful piece of advice:

When you can’t sleep, get out of bed and go into another room so your brain doesn’t associate your bed with staying awake for hours. You want your brain to think of your bed as the place for restful sleep.

That advice works just as well for working at home.

By setting up a home office, even if that just means a small desk and chair, it gives you the opportunity to “go to work” in the morning, and “go home” when the work day is done. If you are constantly bringing your laptop to the couch to answer emails while you watch TV, or worse, bringing your laptop to bed to answer those last few emails of the day before knocking off for the night, you aren’t giving your brain the ability to switch into the proper mode. The end result being, your brain will associate your desk, your couch, and your bed with doing work. This is a sure-fire path towards burnout.

Get ready, it’s work time!

Over the past 10 years of working from home, I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work for me. I’ve also had a great many conversations with other remote workers about their successes and failures and it’s amazing how much they all overlap. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a new trick from time to time. For me, when I started working at Revelry last year, I was reminded of a lesson I had learned many years ago but had apparently fallen out of my memory.

Give yourself time to get ready for work.

When I started at Revelry, I was pleased to learn the work day started an hour later than what I was used to. This was one time where being in the Pacific time zone has really paid off. Initially, I thought to myself, “this is great, I’ll sleep in an extra hour.” But instead, a much better habit was born. I left my morning alarm set for 6 AM, but instead of rushing to my desk, I’m spending time each morning reading while I drink my coffee and mentally preparing for the day. At 7, I sit down at my desk and I’m ready to tackle the day.

I had a business partner who woke up each morning, showered and got dressed as if he were going to an office (button-up shirt, pants, socks, shoes) before sitting down to work from home. It was his way of getting his brain into work mode.

Your morning ritual may look different, but it’s important to have one. For years I woke up, grabbed a cup of coffee and went straight to my desk. The first hour of each day was wasted as I was still shaking off the cobwebs. I’m thankful for my reading and coffee time each morning. I’m a better worker because of it.

Exiting the rut

No matter if you work from home or if you go to an office each day, it’s very easy to have your daily routine give you the feeling of being in a rut. Doing the same thing day after day will do that to you. So, no matter how great your working environment is, there’s going to come a time when you need to switch things up. But, how do you switch things up without a complete overhaul of your work environment? Let’s look at some options for the “work from home” and the “work at an office” types.

Working from home

If you’re like me and work at home at a designated desk, it’s pretty easy to switch things up. Especially since the changes you make won’t affect anybody else in the “office.” Here are some things I do when I need to mix things up.

  • Work from the kitchen table for a few hours
    I do this in the morning when I’m usually spending time getting caught up on emails or updating tickets. Then, when I’m ready to go head-down with some code, I head back to the office.
  • Walking meetings
    If you don’t need to physically be in front of a computer for a call, try putting on a pair of headphones and do your call while walking around the block. Or, if you have a treadmill at home, that works great, too.
  • Throw on some headphones
    I like listening to background music while I work. Sometimes, as a way to switch things up and block out the world, I’ll put headphones on. I’m amazed at how this simple change feels like an entirely new environment, even if I’m still just sitting at my desk.
  • STAND UP!
    Too much sitting is killing us all. Invest in your health and buy a stand/sit desk and then spend part of your work day standing at your desk. A great way to ease into this is by standing during all meetings. It’s amazing how much better you’ll feel after doing this for a while.
  • Co-work
    For me, leaving the house to work feels like too much work. But, every once in a while, the actual physical change in scenery can recharge the batteries.

Work at an office

If you work at an office, your options for switching things up may be limited by the fact that you don’t want to disrupt the entire office. But, there are still things you can do to switch things up.

  • Take a walk!
    When I worked in an office, I had a really bad habit of eating lunch at my desk. It’s like I was on the fast-track to burnout. Going outside and getting some fresh air at lunch was extremely helpful in breaking up the day and resetting my brain. Find a bench in the shade and enjoy lunch outside. You’ll be glad you did.
  • Ask about working remotely
    Just because you work in an office all the time, does that mean you HAVE to work at the office all the time? Ask your boss if you can work from home once a week or even once a month. A change in routine can be beneficial to you AND to the company!
  • Switch up your tunes
    I already talked about using headphones, which obviously would work at the office, too. But, you should also consider switching up the music you listen to. I recently starting listening to classical music part of the day.

You’ll need to test these out and see if they are something you can do without sacrificing too much of your productivity. But, a little loss in productivity can be worth it if it means you avoid burnout.

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